I learned of the sad passing of Professor Harry Neumann. He was a long-time teacher of political philosophy at Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate University in California. He was my teacher.
When I was graduating from college, I had no idea what to do. I went to my friend and advisor, Paul Basinski, and told him I wanted to keep learning around thoughtful, serious people interested in reading serious books. I did not much, then, but I knew enough to know those types are rare, even among academics.
Paul told me about Claremont and the two Harrys: Harry Jaffa and Harry Neumann. Jaffa, he said, is the greatest living defender of classical natural right, while Neumann is the only intellectually honest nihilist. He said that going to Claremont and studying with the two Harrys would be the closest thing to studying with a living Socrates and Nietzsche.
He was right.
Harry Neumann was the best scholar and teacher of Nietzsche I’ve ever known. He was excellent in the technical, academic sense of teaching. He’d sit with his beaten up, worn out texts in the original German, usually held together with tape and rubber bands, and the English versions assigned to those of us who are language-challenged, explaining the nuances lost in translations.
He’d do the same with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, and many others. It seemed as if there was not a significant thinker whose great books he had not mastered. And he offered so much more.
In the case of Nietzsche, in particular, it seemed like Professor Neumann could think like Nietzsche as well as if not better than Nietzsche did. Professor Neumann truly was a model of his teacher, Leo Strauss, helping students to understand an author as the author understood himself.
It is impossible to describe the mind of Harry Neumann by reference to some book, or writer, or sect. He was not a Nietzschean. Nor was he an Aristotelian. Nor would any religious group likely claim him as one of theirs—his relentless philosophic inquisitiveness rubs piety the wrong way.
He was an American. And he was a thinking mind trying to discover truth. He was a thinking mind’s mind. He was Professor Neumann.
NIHILIST TEACHING THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF NIHILISM
For those of us who paid attention, Professor Neumann showed the real human impossibility of an amoral, nihilist world that consists of nothing but power and nothingness. He confronted thinkers, activists, movers, and shakers of all stripes, liberals and conservatives of all kinds, and showed that their nihilism, whether wrapped in nihilistic multiculturalism or pious faith in gods of nihilistic willfulness, cannot support any political cause.
The core lesson taught by Professor Neumann is simple and understood by few today: Nothingness supports no moral or political cause. Every moral and political cause is informed by some idea of what is right. Nothingness, however, is not “right.” Nothingness is nothing.
Not long after the shooting of students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, anti-war student protests in Claremont were quickly escalating in violence. Buildings were being set on fire and a package bomb maimed for life a secretary when she opened it. The Claremont Colleges called an emergency faculty meeting. They were worried that the National Guard would be called out and they did not want the massacre that happened at Kent State to be repeated in Claremont.
In the midst of the hand-wringing and moralizing, Professor Neumann stood to remind the faculty that as academics, most of them peddled nihilism in one form or another, explicitly or esoterically, to their students. They were professionals teaching that there is no truth, no right, only moral nothingness.
Wearing his nihilist mask, he congratulated them and then asked why a group of nihilistic academics cared if students were shot. Did they, after all, think that shooting students was…wrong? And does not a moral wrong imply the existence of some objective moral right? And is not the idea of an objective moral right the very thing those academics denied?
The faculty and so-called “intellectuals” dismissed him as a crank, or crazy. That’s because they were too intellectually cowardly to confront the moral challenge he posed. They were more interested in ignoring and contradicting what they espoused in the classroom rather than truly understanding themselves.
By challenging them to defend the idea that soldiers shooting students is wrong, Professor Neumann had cut to the moral core of the matter: If there is no right and no wrong, if there is no moral truth, there should be no cause for concern about anything. All he was asking is that the so-called “intellectuals” with whom he worked be intellectually honest about it.
More, if there is a right and a wrong, then those academics and intellectuals should stop advocating their nihilism and become intellectually honest enough to investigate what right and wrong truly are, what truth is. THAT was Professor Neumann’s point. THAT is genuine philosophic education. And I am proud to call myself his student.
Professor Neumann peered deeply into nothingness like few others have done. And as he looked at nothing, I think he saw something.
His nihilistic façade scared away the more timid, perhaps rightly so. When asked “How are you doing today, Professor?” he’d always reply: “50-50.” Not one degree in the direction of doing “well” and not a degree in the direction of doing “poorly”—because “well” and “poorly” both are measured and defined by what is “good.” Rather, he chose to respond to ordinary greetings with a perfect mathematical representation or moral neutrality: 50-50.
Like any great, rare thinking mind, Professor Neumann had a way about his thoughts and his speech and his writing. It took considerable effort to delve into the depths of his way and make sense of it. But for those who had the courage to hear him out, and the energy to work and think alongside him, the rewards of insight were infinite.
He helped serious students see the darkness of nothing, but in turn that helped them to better see and appreciate the light of truth. If it is true that one cannot know dark without knowing light, so too is the opposite. And I remain persuaded that Professor Neumann, ultimately, was a teacher of the light.
PHILOSOPHY VS. POLITICS
Professor Neumann saw, and helped others see, the eternal conflict between theological politics (and all politics is theological, as he demonstrated daily in his classes) and philosophy. If all politics is grounded in some confident knowledge about moral right and moral truth—and all political advocates are confident of the truthfulness and rightness of their cause, be they Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, Communists or Nazis, feminists or environmentalists or multiculturalists or Islamists or Jews or Christians or whatever—then the questioning ways of philosophy must always be problematic for politics.
Philosophy, in other words, cannot avoid a quarrel with politics. Philosophy is a quarrel with politics because philosophy questions the very things politics holds to be unquestionable. All philosophy, therefore, ultimately is political philosophy. And that is also why so little that is taught in academic departments of “philosophy” is worthy of its name.
No scene in the history of human drama better illustrates the conflict between politics and philosophy than the trial and execution of Socrates. What was the main charge against Socrates? Not merely breaking the law, but, more importantly, impiety, something pious Athenians could not and would not tolerate.
Piety was not merely mandated by the ancient law, it was the ground upon which the authority of the law rested. The philosophizing of Socrates was seen by Athenians as nothing less than a mortal attack upon and undermining of their sacred law and political authority. That is why Professor Neumann spent the better part of his career trying to understand that mysterious Greek, perhaps the only truly philosophic soul ever to live, Socrates.
Professor Neumann helped students of politics understand the true, real, primordial, moral ground of politics, always and everywhere. He helped students of philosophy understand the genuinely radical nature of philosophy. And he helped some understand the intrinsic, always problematic relationship between the two. For that, I thank him.
Professor Neumann is gone. It feels like the world is smaller today for it. I miss him and I am sad. But his memory and legacy shall not die. His name and his way of helping others learn to think will survive so long as his students, and the students of his students, remember what they learned from him and share with others. However inadequate my abilities, I shall try to do my part in honor of him. Farewell, Professor Neumann.